The time of top-down governance is coming to an end. As demands for more transparency and citizen involvement are growing, citizen-led change is happening everywhere across the world. Whether it’s on social media or through official channels, petitions and public initiatives can now quickly gather support and force governments to listen up. Integrating these processes into local governments has the power to change democracies, says our co-founder.

Rather than trying to avoid this phenomenon, many local governments are embracing the change. They perceive this as a way to re-invent dialogue with their citizens and give them a say in decision-making. However, these same governments also feel that there is a lack of appropriate tools to channel this energy. The cities and citizens that we work with have often expressed the need for a tool capable of collecting citizens’ ideas outside of political timetables and consultation cycles.

As a result, we’re starting a brand new chapter on the CitizenLab platforms: citizen initiatives

What are citizen initiatives? 

The concept of citizen initiatives is a continuous form of bottom-up participation. This type of participation differs from the current idea-gathering approach of our platforms because it doesn’t fit into the limitations of an existing project. Rather than responses to a fixed question asked by governments (ie “what colour should the bins be?“), these are grass-roots initiatives led by citizens themselves (ie “we want to change garbage collecting routes“).

Citizen initiatives allow citizens to write down their proposals at any time, and gather support for their initiative. Ideas that reach a pre-defined threshold (this can be a varying number of comments, votes, shares…), are to added the municipal agenda and receive a response whatever the outcome, ensuring dialogue between all parties. An initiative may be a simple request to the city, but it might also require the city to play a supporting role in the spirit of co-creation. Let’s take a look at a fictional example:

The fictional neighbourhood of Greenville is home to a lot of young families. A few parents have expressed concern about the traffic situation in the central street. They’d like to reconsider the way the traffic currently flows, and experiment with temporary DIY road structures. These would still allow the traffic to pass, but make the meeting and playing spots safer and more pleasant. The engaged citizens are more than willing to take action, but need a formal permission from the city. Also, they would benefit from expert advice from the mobility department and the civil servants who work with local merchants.  

Why are citizen initiatives important? 

Citizen initiatives allow cities to keep track of the matters citizens deem important, right on the participation platform. It allows citizens to propose new ideas that stand outside of the political agenda, and to start discussions on issues that matter to them. In a way, Citizen Initiatives is a structured version of Facebook posts and social media petitions that citizens already use to express themselves – only by fitting in to existing framework, they give more weight to the idea and help them reach city officials. 

Legal framework for citizen initiatives across Europe – these are the thresholds that citizen initiatives need to reach in order to be considered

Citizen initiatives ensure two-way communication between local governments and their citizens; by implementing the process, cities show they’re ready to hear from their citizens at any time, and give them true power to weigh in on the political agenda. This goes beyond the power of a simple consultation, which is limited in time and in scope.

By letting citizens vote for each others’ ideas and decide who reaches thresholds, citizen initiatives place great power in the hands of citizens. Because they require wide support to pass the required threshold, the ideas need to convince citizens outside of party lines and from different political backgrounds. This process goes beyond traditional participation and encourages deliberation between peers, which many argue is a deeper, richer process for our democracies.

How does it work?

Basically, cities set the rules. They can decide to implement initiatives on their existing platform. If an initiative meets all the requirements, cities offer to do something in return. This could be an official response, a spot on the agenda of the upcoming council meeting, or even giving the citizen(s) in question the opportunity to present their own ideas at the council meeting. However, if an initiative does not meet all the necessary requirements, the process stops there. Cities remain in control, and the platform offers all the necessary tools to manage the activity on the platform.

Local governments implementing citizen initiatives have to define clear criteria for the ideas and let citizens know what to expect. The main points are the following:

  • The number of votes required for a citizen initiative to be considered. As a rule of thumb, this is often expressed in % of a total population (ie 1-3% of the population).
  • The time frame to reach that support. It’s important to find a balance between allowing enough time to rally support versus motivating people to actively work on their initiatives.
  • The eligibility criteria. This criteria is shared with everyone who starts an initiative. Initiatives must usually be for the common good be non-discriminatory and not use defamatory language. Cost can also be an additional criteria.
  • Next steps once an idea reaches the desired threshold: does the idea automatically get added to the agenda? Do the citizens meet the relevant services in the townhall? Does the city attribute funds to the idea? Clearly defining this step helps manage expectations on all sides.

Would you like to implement citizen initiatives in your local government? Let us know!

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